by Teresa Quiroz
On my first visit to the Holy Land I wanted it to complete a dream that I had for a long time. Since my sisterhood joined the Women of the Wall (WoW) movement I was impressed by the courage and valor of the founders of the WoW group. I heard that Anat Hoffman had started the group at least 25 years ago. My husband found a newspaper clipping from 1980 when it was international news that WoW was asserting their right to celebrate Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel as a collective Jewry. It was unheard of that women not only wanted to celebrate Rosh Chodesh but wanted to chant from the Torah at the Kotel wearing kippot, tallitot, and t'fillin! Why not; after all Rosh Chodesh has been a holiday reserved for women. Why not? Since when has chanting from the Torah scroll been for men only.
I went to Jerusalem to celebrate and join in with WoW. I wanted to show my support. I was assigned an aliyah and I prepared for the chanting with the help of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a WoW Board member. I met Rachel for the first time at the Reform synagogue Kol Ha Neshama. She was “borrowing” the Torah scroll for the Rosh Chodesh service. I learned then that in Israel it is illegal to bring a Torah scroll into the women’s section at the Kotel. I was well aware of the sometimes violent situations the group had endured throughout their relentless fight to be allowed to chant Torah from the scroll but I was not prepared for what ensued the following day.
Rachel carefully packed the Torah on a backpack because the next day she is going to “smuggle” it into the Kotel. At the time I did not know what she really meant, however I began to sense some sort of danger. All I was focused was chanting during the service. I rehearsed chanting from the Torah scroll with Rachel at the Women of the Wall office located in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. That day I was also introduced to staff members working for their group. I was impacted to see that a picture hanging on the wall of their office. I had seen this picture in Toronto at a temporary art gallery it had won first prize in reporting journalism: WoW praying and being protected surrounded by female army officers.
On Friday, July 17, Rosh Chodesh Av, I was at the Kotel ready at 6:30 a.m. as instructed. I could not find Rachel or anyone that appeared to be part of the group. The service was to begin at 7 a.m. and that time had long passed. At about 7:15 a group of women came down the ramp: it was them. They seemed agitated. They began to set up bringing out a table and distributing their own WoW siddurim, One of the women addressed the crowd, by now between 200-300 women, indicating that Rachel had been arrested, handcuffed, and taken, along with the Torah scroll, to the police station, but that the Rosh Chodesh service would take place regardless.
By this time the crowd of Haredim in the plaza behind the women had multiplied and they were yelling their prayers in Hebrew so loudly that our voices could not be heard. My husband said they were chanting psalms, but I disagreed.
The hostility on the women’s side was also demonstrated by the Orthodox women. A woman stood on top of a stool, right in front of us, wearing a black coat with a demonstration sign written in Hebrew on her back. She never moved but we continued our service. Later another woman came with a referee’s whistle, blowing it all around us to interrupt the service until a female security agent came to remove her.
In the open plaza behind the women’s section, male supporters came to pray with us with radio transmitters to allow them to follow the service. This group of men ended up sandwiched between the barrier to the women’s section and the police barricade erected to keep the Orthodox men at a safe distance.
We had our Rosh Chodesh service without the Torah. We chanted from our WoW siddur. There were four women including me scheduled to have aliyot, amongst us one woman was celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. I had the fourth aliyah, but by then I was a wreck. The heat, the nervousness, and the harassing environment almost made me faint, but I did not.
At the end of the service when we chanted "HaTikvah" I wept for several reasons. We are supposed to be one people, Am Echad, but I discovered that the fundamental orthodoxy of the Rabbinate in Israel hold a monopoly over the Torah and we, liberal women, were treated as an enemy.
I admire the determination of Anat Hoffman and WoW, for the hostilities they have endured for years, month after month, only because of one reason: their right to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, a special observance reserved for women, by reading the Torah in the Kotel. We as women should have the right to read from a Torah scroll in peace here, everywhere, and especially at the Kotel.
As Rabbi Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” I had to say something in support of WoW and admit that the experience has transformed me. To affect change we have to show our support and there are many ways to do it: "like" Women of the Wall on Facebook, buy their siddur, donate, write an email to the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, or write words of encouragement to WoW. By all means don’t remain silent.
Originally posted on the Holy Blossom Temple Blog.
Teresa Quiroz is a Board member of Holy Blossom Temple Sisterhood in Toronto, ON, Canada. After studying cantillation, she has become a regular chanter at Rosh Chodesh services. She lives in Toronto with her husband and teenage son who are also very involved in Jewish life.